Tomatoes and native bees | TheFencePost.com

Tomatoes and native bees

Tom Theobald
Niwot, Colo.

Sasha's Altai has joined the tomato menu. This tomato was recommended to me by a Fence Post reader four years ago who said she had raised it with good success at 9,300 feet, above Idaho Springs, Colo. I got some seed from Gary and Dagma and when my first season was a success I tried to contact the reader to thank her, but found that she had moved on and disappeared. At this point her name has slipped from the memory bank, but if she is still out there and still a Fence Post reader, drop me a line and let me know where you are.

Sasha's Altai is a Siberian tomato and I could hardly do better at describing it than Gary has on his tomatofest site. Here is what Gary has to say about it:

"An excellent variety from Russia. Seeds were given to Bill McDorman when in Irkutsk, Siberia in 1989, by his dear Siberian friend Sasha who claimed this variety that he grew in his garden in the Altai Shan mountain range was the 'best tomato in all of Siberia'. Sasha's Altai was selected by Organic Garden Magazine as one of the 10 best early producing tomatoes in the world. Sasha's Altai is a hearty tomato plant that produces very good yields of 4-6 ounce, thin-skinned, bright red, slightly flattened, round tomatoes with an award-winning complex flavor. Fruit sets well in cooler coastal climates and high altitudes. Excellent for canning, salads, and making tomato juice."

The urge to garden doesn't diminish with the altitude. I have several acres at 9,300 feet about six miles northeast of Tabernash, Colo., that Barbara and I bought shortly after we were married. We talked about it as a mountain hideaway when we retired and I wondered, if we did, what adaptations I would have to make if I wanted to grow anything beyond root crops. Sasha's Altai might have been part of the answer. I'm sure I have some mountain gardeners among my readership, so put Sasha's Altai on your seed list for next year and let's see how it does at altitude.

Sasha'sAltai should be the last of my early tomatoes. I started with Glacier and ate the first tomato from that variety on the 29th of June. A few days later the first Bloody Butcher ripened and a week or so after that came Sasha's Altai. In August the real prizes should begin to yield, German Queen, Thessaloniki, Black From Tula and several others. I'll crow about them as they come in.

I still have a few Sunflower Leafcutter bees filling out the nest box on the south side of the chicken coop, but they should be coming to the end of their active life cycle before long and that will be it until next July. For 11 months of the years having these natives, the Mason Bees and the Sunflower Leafcutters, is about as exciting as having a pet rock.

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Another native bee has shown up just recently, one that I look for and count on and one that I have written about before, the Squash Bee, about 20 species that belong to two genera, Peponapis and Xenoglossa. Like many of the native bees, the Squash Bees have co-evolved with a particular plant community, in this case the cucurbits — squash, melons, cucumbers, pumpkins, gourds and the like.

These native bees have an interesting history, apparently beginning their association with the cucurbit family as wild plants, then continuing that association as the plants came under cultivation by early Native Americans. Their range has increased along with the spread of the cucurbits and they now play a major role in their pollination from Canada to Uruguay.

Commercial growers of the cucurbits have traditionally contracted with beekeepers to assure that their crops were adequately pollinated, but the reality may be that the honey bees are more of an insurance policy rather than the primary pollinators. Squash Bees are early risers and at first light you can find them in the squash blossoms, in fact often the males will spend the afternoon and night in the closed blossoms and are waiting for the females when they show up the next morning, so the squash blossoms are sort of the "singles bar" for the Squash Bee. By the time the honey bees show up later in the morning, most if not all of the pollination has already occurred.

The downside is that we never know how the Squash Bees have fared over the winter until it is too late. If they had a bad winter and there are relatively few or none when the cucurbits begin to flower, and the grower doesn't have honey bees on hand as a back up, then the crop may be lost to lack of pollination.

Although tomatoes are self-fertile and can be wind pollinated, there are a variety of native bees that are crucial to the pollination of tomatoes. Because of the form of the flower and the nature of the pollen, honey bees don't pollinate tomatoes. Tomatoes need to be "buzz pollinated," vibrated at a certain frequency so the flowers will shed their pollen, which will then fall on the flowers below, pollinating them. Bumblebees are a primary buzz pollinator and are used extensively for greenhouse tomatoes, but in the garden a number of other natives less obvious than the bumblebees also play a role. If you are bored and have some time on your hands, take a chair and a cup of coffee out into the garden and watch for a while to see what critters may be visiting your tomatoes.

Even though many of the garden crops have yet to bear, we are on the back side of summer now and I am thinking fall. I'm starting to think about my annual trip to Denver for containers and the Honey House is calling out — clean me, clean me. No rest for the wicked I guess. ❖